Wooden's World of Baseball

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Winter Independent Baseball?

Times are good for independent baseball — so good that it appears that the indys will not be holding winter meetings for the 2nd year in a row. So good that not one but two new independent leagues are slated to start play in 2007 (The South Coast League and the Continental Baseball League), a year after two new leagues were born (the American Association and the United League). So good that the Atlantic League has willingly let a franchise defect to its pseudorival, the Can-Am League, for the 2nd straight season (the latter of which will be going to 10 teams after struggling to keep 8 teams!) because it's looking ahead to expansion both in 2007 (York) and 2008 (Maryland).

And now, there are plans for three fall/winter leagues: The Fall Baseball League (nee The Baja League), the ULB Winter League, and the Arizona Winter League.

Now I'm not so starry-eyed that I think all of these will succeed. In fact, I'd place a Duke-Brothers bet (that's a hefty $1 for those of you who don't remember Trading Places ;-) that the Baja league is as quixotic as its website is amateurish and will not happen this year, if ever. Similarly, the Continental Baseball League (apparently, creating new league names is not a popular option) looks likes it's only slightly more organized than the Colonial League of Professional Baseball. I'm not even counting the New York State League, which is nothing more than a press release, let alone a DIY website.

But the Arizona Winter League looks like a very real possibility, if for no other reason than the "parent" league is so well-funded, not to mention the draw of playing in the same state as where the affiliates have spring training. It and the ULB's effort look like what they are: a place for collegiate players who didn't play professional ball last year to get back into the game and see if they have what it takes, and perhaps, some foreign-born players (I'm not buying the line that "independent professional players under contract [will be] using this as a development/instructional opportunity to get ready for the 2007 summer season.")

All of this bears witness to two essential and underreported premises:

1) Andrew Zimbalist's contention that MLB can fully support 32 teams
Since the number of affiliates has been frozen at 160 and a list of stringent stadium standards adopted (ostensibly to prevent players from playing at places like McKenzie Field, but in reality to force cities to compete with each other to build new facilities), the independents have an easier time expanding and/or moving in where the affiliates have left.

2) Baseball has entered a new golden era
The necessary corollary is that if there is this much demand for baseball, or at least, affordable summer entertainment, then the indys would not be expanding and setting attendance records.
Blather all you want about the 1950s and before, but the reality is this: These operations are operating under much more competition than in past eras and they are doing it without the use of free labor, as the affiliates then and now do.


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